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By Lisa Chiu
SEA’s hands-on lab approach takes on life of its own.
When biology professor Ann Findley first considered teaching a research course to freshmen at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, she wasn’t certain they could meet the challenge. Coming from rural school systems, many of the students had never set foot in a science lab.
“Not only have they stepped up, they’ve soared and become peer leaders on campus,” says Findley. The assumption was that a research-based program would succeed only at elite universities or among honors students. “We’ve been able to prove that even truly novice students can do research at a very high level and benefit from it in exciting ways we never could have imagined.”
Participants from the 10 other colleges and universities that pioneered HHMI’s phage course, formally known as the National Genomics Research Initiative, share Findley’s enthusiasm. So much so that even though their three years of HHMI support are ending, each of these schools has committed to continuing to offer the course. The introductory bio lab course thrusts freshmen into the world of research instead of parking them in the more traditional bio lab of “experiments” with preordained outcomes.
This first cohort of schools (the fourth cohort starts this fall) is working to offer the course to more freshmen, expand research opportunities to upperclassmen at their own institutions, and spread the program to other colleges.
“We really want to go viral with this idea of early research experiences; it’s just so exciting and valuable,” says professor Louise Temple of the Integrated Science & Technology Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Temple is leading the effort with 17 other institutions—7 of them from the first cohort; 6 from the second—to secure a National Science Foundation grant to create a network that supports the expansion and diversification of the phage course model to include other organisms and other universities and colleges.
The phage course is a relatively simple concept based on work by HHMI professor Graham Hatfull at the University of Pittsburgh. Students isolate novel viruses that infect bacteria, called bacteriophages or phages, from soil, and then purify them, isolate their genomic DNA, and send it away for DNA sequencing. When the sequence comes back, the students employ bioinformatics tools to annotate and characterize their new-found phages.
From start to finish, there are no guarantees of success or right answers. Students endure the pitfalls of true research, such as contaminated bacterial plates and inscrutable results, along with the thrill of discovery and eureka moments small and large. “Just because something is effective, doesn’t mean that it’s always a comfortable experience to go through,” says Grant Hartzog, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “These [students] are getting pushed to think hard in ways that they aren’t used to.”
And the phage course is effective. As the first initiative of HHMI’s Science Education Alliance (SEA), which now encompasses 67 schools, participants have been documenting their experiences: students participating are more likely to continue in science courses and perform significantly better in lecture courses than peers in traditional laboratories, says Tuajuanda Jordan, former director of SEA who was instrumental in getting the program off the ground. Jordan notes, “We are born naturally curious and the SEA course engages that curiosity and really helps students develop higher thinking skills.”
Illustration: Jamie Cullen